Shaping an Effective White House

Whatever Jeb Bush says or does on lobbying reform, a key test for a third Bush administration will be how he runs the White House. Looking back at W.’s presidency, let’s just say the “corporate CEO” model of presidential leadership had its obvious shortcomings. Moreover, with Jeb already declaring war on the bureaucracy he would lead, it would be helpful if he and his people had some clear ideas about the relationship between the White House and federal agencies.

This has been a problem for the Obama administration as well, and really to some extent for all modern presidencies. So it’s helpful to look at the finely wrought suggestions at Ten Miles Square of Stanford Law School lecturer and CAP Fellow David Hayes, a veteran of the Obama and Clinton administrations, on how the White House should manage its relationships with the rest of the executive branch.

Clearly Hayes believes the sort of herky-jerky crisis management mode White House staff tend to fall into when agencies screw up is not a sustainable way to operate; it invariably entangles White House staff in agency implementation work for which it usually is not equipped. They’re on safer ground dealing with multi-agency problems, but even then they can get too far into the weeds or too superficially involved via task forces and meetings.

There is a formula for White House involvement in cross-agency implementation activities that threads this needle. The formula takes a middle road, avoiding the extremes of the customary response in which the White House either: (1) goes all in and tries to manage complex, in-the-weeds agency implementation challenges (often unsuccessfully); or (2) papers over the problem by forming a Task Force, calling meetings, and writing a report that chronicles each agencies’ existing practices and lays out a toothless action plan that urges increased coordination or consolidation of practices but little else.

A more effective approach is for the White House to get involved, but step away from trying to quarterback the reform and harmonization of how governmental services are delivered at the agency level. Rather than putting short-staffed and non-expert White House offices in charge of the effort, the White House should be empowering high-level, accountable cabinet or sub-cabinet officials and their deep staffs from one or two agencies to lead complex, multi-agency implementation efforts. The White House would have an important role in backing up the authority of the cabinet officials who are tasked with addressing the issue, including ensuring that other agencies are cooperating with the agency leads, and helping to address budgetary needs. To use a sports metaphor, the anointed cabinet official is the quarterback of the effort. He or she has the resources and responsibility to execute the game plan that the White House, as the coach, has put together and will support (including calling in additional players like OMB and others, if needed).

The whole topic of a potential president’s White House management style needs more scrutiny than it will get during the long campaign. Fortunately or unfortunately, two of the aspirants have spent more than a little time around 600 Pennsylvania Avenue and its occupants.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.